Legal Definition of Property?

Property includes not only money and other tangible things of value, but also any intangible right considered as a source or element of income or wealth. This also includes the right and interest of which a person holds in lands and chattels to the exclusion of others. It is the right to enjoy and to dispose of certain things in the most absolute manner as they please, provided they make no use of them prohibited by law.

Items Not Considered Property

All things are not the subject of property. The sea, the air, and the like, cannot be appropriated. This is because every one may enjoy them, but no individual has an exclusive right to them. When things are fully our own, or when all others are excluded from meddling with them or from interfering about them, it is plain that no person besides the proprietor, who has this exclusive right, can have any claim either to use them or to hinder him from disposing of them as they please, so that property, considered as an exclusive right to things, contains not only a right to use those things, but a right to dispose of them, either by exchanging them for other things, or by giving them away to any other person, without any consideration, or even throwing them away.

Real Property Versus Personal Property

Property is divided into real property and personal property. Property is also divided, when it consists of goods and chattels, into absolute and qualified. Absolute property is that which is our own, without any qualification whatever; as when a person is the owner of a watch, a book, or other inanimate thing: or of a horse, a sheep, or other animal, which never had its natural liberty in a wild state.

Qualified Property

Qualified property consists in the right which people have over wild animals which they have reduced to their own possession, and which are kept subject to their power; as a deer, a buffalo, and the like, which are their own while they have possession of them, but as soon as their possession is lost, their property is gone, unless the animals, go animus revertendi. Property in personal goods may be absolute or qualified without relation to the nature of the subject-matter, but simply because more persons than one have an interest in it, or because the right of property is separated from the possession. A bailee of goods, though not the owner, has a qualified property in them; while the owner has the absolute property. Personal property is further divided into property in possession, and property or chooses in action.

Corporeal Versus Incorporeal

Property is again divided into corporeal and incorporeal. The former comprehends such property as is perceptible to the senses, as lands, houses, goods, merchandise and the like; the latter consists in legal rights, as chooses in action, easements, and the like. Property is lost, in general, in three ways:

  • By the act of man
    • Alienation; but in order to do this, the owner must have a legal capacity to make a contract.
    • By the voluntary abandonment of the thing; but unless the abandonment be purely voluntary, the title to the property is not lost; as, if things be thrown into the sea to save the ship, the right is not lost.
    • But even a voluntary abandonment does not deprive the former owner from taking possession of the thing abandoned, at any time before another takes possession of it.
  • By the act of law
    • The title to property is lost by operation of law.
    • By the forced sale, under a lawful process, of the property of a debtor to satisfy a judgment, sentence, or decree rendered against him, to compel him to fulfill his obligations.
    • By confiscation, or sentence of a criminal court.
    • By prescription.
    • By civil death.
    • By capture of a public enemy.
  • By the act of God
    • The title to property is lost by the act of God, as in the case of the death of slaves or animals, or in the total destruction of a thing; for example, if a house be swallowed up by an opening in the earth during an earthquake.

It is proper to observe that in some cases, the moment that the owner loses their possession, they also lose their property or right in the thing: animals ferae naturae, as mentioned above, belong to the owner only while they retain the possession of them. But, in general, the loss of possession does not impair the right of property, for the owner may recover it within a certain time allowed by law.